Strathcona Community Garden in Vancouver is taking steps towards turning their orchard into a permaculture garden by integrating herbs, perennials and other plants into their orchard space. 

Creating a Permaculture Garden

Creating a Permaculture Garden

Whether you are growing just one fruit tree or many, you can easily transform your yard or orchard into a healthy and highly productive permaculture garden according to award-winning author and permaculture specialist Eric Toensmeier. In a webinar interview with the Community Orchard Network (click the video above to view the webinar), the lecturer at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies made permaculture gardening look easy. All you have to do is start by integrating a variety of edible and other plants into your growing space.

For some of us, the word “permaculture” can seem intimidating. Permaculture is a type of sustainable agriculture where the gardener works to mimic a natural ecosystem, using different plants that work together to  harmonize and maintain themselves like they would in the wild. When done well, a permaculture garden can become a home for beneficial insects and animals that will further enrich to the ecosystem.

raspberry plants fruiting in permaculture garden

Raspberry plants can thrive if correctly placed in your permaculture garden.

“We’re emphasizing perennial plants like fruits and other perennials that are generally low maintenance,” Toensmeier explained in the webinar. In addition to creating an easy-to-maintain perennial landscape, he also emphasized other benefits including increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, improving the soil’s capacity to retain water, and providing habitat for beneficial insects. In the tropics, communities have been using these agricultural strategies for thousands of years. Toensmeier’s aim is to create and nurture edible forests in a colder climate.

A young pear tree thriving in a permaculture garden

A young pear tree thriving in a permaculture garden

Step 1: A Forest Needs Trees

A forest needs trees, and planting a selection of fruit and berry trees is a good starting point. You can plant nut trees, but many many species are too large for an urban garden; Toensmeier suggests that urban gardeners opt instead for smaller trees and shrubs including hazelnuts, dwarf pine trees (you can harvest the pine nuts), and the 12 to 15 foot tall yellowhorn which has edible leaves and seeds and fragrant flowers. Do you already have an orchard to work with? Use it as a base and slowly transform it into a  permaculture garden over time by adding understory plants.

Step 2: Include Perennial Vegetables

Perennial vegetables are very diverse, and many types would fit right into permaculture garden or edible forest ecosystems. Toensmeier notes that there are over 600 species of of useful perennials that we can grow in North America, so there’s always something interesting that will fit the local climate and palette. But Toensmeier isn’t a stickler when it comes to using only native plants. He says that while simulating native environments in your landscaping can be “educational”, it might not be varied or provide enough delicious produce. Leafy greens, root vegetables, and things like rhubarb and broccolis come in hundreds of varieties, and chances are that you can find a few that fit into your project.

Eric Toensmeier’s Permaculture Garden Plant Suggestions

  • The beach plum – A small plum shrub native to the eastern United States. It grows about six feet tall and prefers dry soil.
  • The paw paw – A larger tree native to eastern North America with large, pulpy fruits. They do very very well in urban soils. They can grow 30 feet tall.
  • The dwarf kiwi – A vine with small fruits native to China, Japan, and Korea which is hardy and grows well in the shade.
  • The gooseberry – A fast growing bush that is native to Europe and Asia, and can reach about five feet tall. They prefer strong light and do best with some pruning towards the end of the season.
  • Currants – Both the redcurrant and white currant do well in the shade, growing as small to medium sized shrubs with sweet and tart fruits. A hybrid known as the jostaberry is also commonly grown.
  • Chilean guava – A species of fruiting myrtle that does very well in warm southern regions and that grows well in the shade.
  • Hazelnut – Hazel shrubs do very well in partial shade and fit right in beneath larger trees. They would work well in a forest-like environment, providing shade for its neighbours beneath it while receiving shade from those above.
  • Turkish rocket and sea kale – Both perennial vegetables related to cabbage, Turkish rocket and sea kale do well with shade and grow low to the ground.
  • Climbing spinach – A climbing vine with edible leaves that prefers part shade and humid locations. They can grow quite long, and do best in loose, acidic soil.
  • Skirret – Similar to parsnips, skirret are squat root vegetables that tolerate cold fairly well. They have been cultivated since medieval times and flowers that attract good insects.
  • Groundnut – One of many plants with similar names, the American groundnut is a climbing plant with edible tubers and beans. It is a nitrogen fixing plant that does well in part shade.
  • Fiddlehead ferns – Immature, unfurled fronds of certain ferns – for example, the ostrich fern – are edible once boiled or steamed. Ostrich ferns are low growing and ornamental, and do well in shade.

Step 3: Integrate Nitrogen Fixing Plants

One problem that should be addressed in any larger permaculture gardening project is nitrogen fixing. Toensmeier reminds us that urban soil is often more at risk of low nitrogen levels, and nitrogen fixing plants gradually provide nitrogen to their neighbours. This means you no longer need to till compost into the soil, or using nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers on your garden. There are a wide variety of nitrogen fixing plants available to add to your garden, and with a little research you should be able to find the perfect one for your project. Toensmeier himself grows dwarf false indigo among other plants; not only does the false indigo fix nitrogen, it also attracts beneficial insects.

Integrating native plants and flowers into your orchard is one way to attract beneficial insects

Integrating native plants and flowers into your orchard is one way to attract beneficial insects

Step 4: Attract Beneficial Insects

A permaculture garden needs beneficial insects to thrive. He encourages us to use nectar-rich plants to attract insects such as bees and wasps. A well maintained permaculture garden can become a haven for beneficial insects that will venture out to pollinate your fruit trees, berry bushes and other plants. Some may even control pest species like aphids, and in turn become a food source for birds and other animals; a food chain in your own back yard. (Learn more about how beneficial insects can protect your fruit trees from pests and diseases by clicking here)

Step 5: Include Mushrooms in Shady Areas

A forest is far more than just trees and plants, and an edible, permaculture forest garden is no different. A true forest has shady, damp undergrowth; Toensmeier notes that it’s possible to use this to your advantage and grow mushrooms in your edible forest. Some species like shiitake and oyster mushrooms can grow on logs – you can buy plugs and hammer them into untreated logs to harvest later on. He specifically notes the Stropharia species – also known as the ”garden giants” or “wine caps” – are the easiest to grow, and can be sewn over a pile of woodchips to be harvested the next year. They’re large mushrooms, a lot like portobellos and great for beginners.

Step 6: Cultivate an Edible Forest

The key to permaculture gardening and edible forests is to make it just that – an edible forest. It can have a canopy, underbrush, and ecosystem all its own, all the while providing you with your own crop of fruits and vegetables. You might even give a home to little gardening friends in songbirds and insects; what’s better than that?

Kameron Chausse is a Windsor, Ontario based writer and student at St Clair College. He is currently a journalism intern for the fruit tree care education website .


Watch the webinar by clicking on the video above…